Blue/Orange – Joe Penhall

Blue/Orange – Joe Penhall

So why does Christopher think the oranges in the bowl are blue, inside and out? Dr. Flaherty swears it is evidence of his psychosis and, although it is the day set for discharge, is bent on keeping him in the hospital. Dr. Smith, the senior consultant and Flaherty’s supervisor, maintains that the color of an orange is relative to a person’s cultural associations and wants to let him go. (Also they are short of beds and a rapid turnover, in strict adherence to the rules, makes the good doctor look even better).

Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange is not so much about mental illness – although that is its framework – as it is about power. And ego. And racial prejudice. As the two psychiatrists, one young and scrupulous, the other older, set on his own agenda and entirely ruthless, square off, the patient becomes the battleground. Yet Christopher, a young, hip black man in the throes of delusion, is not without his own power and sometimes uses it to control those who are trying to control him. It’s a wonderful chess game of sorts and the best man may yet win. You are still guessing the next move after the curtain comes down.

It’s easy to see why this British import won the Olivier Prize on its home turf. It’s fast-paced, smartly written, with brilliant flashes of comedy, and absorbing in its subject matter. If American audiences don’t find parallels to the badly flawed U.S. mental health care system, they must have been living on a desert island for the past twenty years.

The Aurora Theatre cast, Paul Oliver as Christopher, T. Edward Webster (“Lobby Hero”} as his psychiatrist, Bruce, and Paul Whitworth as the overbearing Dr. Smith, couldn’t be better. Oliver, in dreadlocks and sweats, twitches and rages at one moment and challenges his keepers with keen intelligence at the next. Convinced he is the son of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Christopher is totally alienated from the outside world to which he yearns to be released.

Webster paints a sympathetic picture of a young, caring physician, caught between his conscience and the system. Yet he is irritatingly condescending to his patient and confrontational with his superior. “Who do you think you are? God?” he challenges him at one point. It is no surprise that he runs into trouble, no matter how noble his intentions.

Dr. Smith is something else again and Whitworth, himself a British import who presently is artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, takes the character and runs with it. At once filled with his own importance (“I am the senior consultant,” he reiterates ad nauseum) and burdened by his own sense of personal failure (he has never made professor or a million pounds or published his opus magnum), he bullies Bruce and cajoles Christopher into doing what he needs in order to further his own career. It’s a chilling portrait of a corporate man on the make and all too familiar. Whitworth is smarmily convincing in the role.

With Robert Ted Anderson’s arresting lighting design and Kate Boyd’s functional institutional set, the production fits the small Aurora stage space neatly. Aurora’s artistic director Tom Ross helmed this one and it’s arguably the best thing the company has put on all season.

In the end, it may not matter whether the oranges are orange or blue. What matters is who owns the bowl.

blueorange.jpg (27908 bytes)

San Francisco, CA
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”